“In nearly all good fiction, the basic — all but inescapable — plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” – John Gardner
The first vital part of your novel we’ll look at in more detail is the plot. If you get this right you will compel your reader to turn page after page.
The plot is what happens in your story. New writers will often write their first book as a straightforward sequence of events, but this displays a lack of planning and makes for a pretty boring experience for the reader. You can’t just have one or two characters moving effortlessly from one scene to another – life just doesn’t work like that! And just as life is complex, so is determining the perfect plot.
Your novel needs:
– Multiple characters – but not too many, and every one of them must have a distinct purpose.
– Multiple events – where things do not go to plan.
– Everything to happen for a reason, and the reader needs to understand that reason.
All plots also need these elements:
1) Something happens in your protagonist’s life to shake things up and change the course of events.
2) The main character wants or needs something to make things right again (this can be something new, something he/she has lost or something that he/she wants).
3) He/she goes on a physical or emotional journey to achieve their goal.
4) There are obstacles in their way as they go on this journey, and he/she struggles to overcome them.
5) He/she either does or doesn’t get what they are looking for, but no matter what they are a changed personafter what they have experienced.
But it is not enough to simply have a solid plot…
“Character is plot; and plot is character.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
As you are developing your plot, try to think about the impact that these events will have on every character. Being aware of all the various reactions will help you to move the story on convincingly and make sure you haven’t missed any exciting moments. All these separate arcs in the story will combine to give you a more effective climax.
Understandably, each author wants to make their mark on the publishing world and write something different, but let’s take a look at the main type of plot formulae that have had a proven success rate and can still be used as a base for an original first novel.
- The quest (action, adventure)
The main character is faced with a huge unexpected obstacle – often life-threatening. There seems to be no positive end in sight as he goes to the ends of the earth to try and solve this dilemma that has totally stalled his day-to-day life. Everything is against him – new characters will thwart his progress, all weather and transport will delay him, and authority figures will stand in his way. He challenges will escalate until he reaches the most testing of them all. Ultimately he will triumph over adversity.
- The prize (thrillers, romance) – The protagonist’s life is not at risk but he still has a strong goal, which it seems he is unlikely to achieve, but he never gives up – despite all the difficulties he encounters – and is eventually victorious.
- The race – Many characters are all trying to reach the same goal, but only one will make it. Each opponent has their own story and reason to fight to the end, and will probably have links with their competitors, which can also be explored for maximum tension.
- The contest – Two strong characters or groups face each other in a dramatic showdown. The two sides are often from the same family or in a close friendship or relationship to heighten the stakes.
- The puzzle (crime) – Clues are drip-fed to the reader to keep them in suspense until the mystery is solved at the end of the novel. The plot is complex with many twists and uncertainties.
- The chase – The protagonist’s main goal is to stop another character from committing a terrible crime or act. It is often the case that the villain has triumphed over the hero in the past, but in this case the hero must win.
- The relationship – (romance) – There are a few popular plotlines when is comes to love stories…
- Boy meets girl, loses her and fails to win her back again and again until he figures out a crazy way to finally charm her.
- Boy meets girl but they don’t realize how perfectly matched they are. As friends, they witness the many ups and downs of each other’s unhappy relationships until they eventually realize they are the ones who should be together.
- Boy meets girl and they loathe each other. Somehow they are linked virtually / professionally but don’t know it and complain about each other to each other via phone, email, social media. Through this experience they become close, until they realize their true identity. This can be a pleasant or unpleasant surprise!
You can of course combine two (or more) of these plot types together when planning your novel.
Ultimately you must know what your plot is and you must get into it as soon as possible to engage the reader. Ideally, your reader will gain their first insight into your plot from the very first line of the book, and at the very least a plot should be established in the first chapter.
When choosing your main goal, it has to be something that a broad audience will understand and empathize with, and the difficulty they are up against has to be significant. Not every plot needs to be life or death, but if it is not life changing, nobody will care enough to follow the struggle.
You can add your own spin and original take in the way your characters accomplish their goals – be clever and inventive when it comes to the completion of each mission. Your hero will be determined and therefore be looking at all possible resources to help him win – the options open to him, or his approach, can be unusual to surprise the reader. If you think about the way YOU would get out of a certain trap then you are limiting the methods of escape. You need to look at the solution from your character’s point of view and use the skills you have given him.
Sub-plots can add rich detail to secondary characters but be careful how many you introduce because you could end up over-complicating the story. Too many sub-plots means too many loose ends which need to be tied up by the end, lengthening your novel unnecessarily and distracting your reader from the main conflict.
The theme of your novel is the central idea of the story. It is evident throughout the whole manuscript, with all the action and dialogue echoing the theme.
The life lesson that the protagonist learns as he/she progresses on their journey directly relates to the theme. Focus on the moral of the tale when determining your theme.
Theme is the area of human concern that a novel investigates – whether emotional or societal.
Don’t be afraid to go niche with your theme – not every novel has to deal with concepts as lofty as war and peace. However, you do need to settle on a theme before you start plotting your novel, otherwise you risk losing your way and writing yourself into a corner.
It is also possible to have more than one theme, with multiple messages threaded through the plot. For instance, it could be about loss and acceptance (P.S. I Love You, Cecelia Ahern), or about travel and social satire (Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift).
Some themes might show themselves in a pattern, regularly reminding the reader of the moral significance of the theme. Others will build slowly, with the reader becoming gradually more aware of the meaning. Your theme may even have its own motif – in Moby Dick, for instance, the white whale represents everything from the whaling industry to the limits of human knowledge, to the power of fate, to the rise of communism.
Ideally you should concentrate on one strong theme when developing your first novel so the reader definitely picks up on what moral you are trying to teach them (through your characters) and that the sense of it is sustained to the end. This should be so clear to you that you can summarize it in one sentence. You can add an additional, more understated theme later if you feel you need to add more weight to the story.
“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”
― Khaled Hosseini
Theme as One Word Statement
Here are some examples of themes that are simple one-word statements – the first thing that will come to the reader’s mind when asked to sum up the novel’s theme…
Death Wish, Robert Garfield – JUSTICE
Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort – GREED
The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King– HOPE
Saving Private Ryan, Max Allan Collins – BRAVERY
Man on Fire, A. J. Quinnell – REVENGE
Last Tango in Paris, Robery Alley – DESIRE
My Girl, Patricia Hermes – LOSS
Requiem For A Dream, Hubery Selby, Jr. – OBSESSION
These are the overwhelming emotional tones and subject matters which we think bind the stories together, the human traits or experiences embodied in character and plot.
Whilst one-word theme statements can be the starting point for a novel, kind of a ‘thematic setting’, more advanced writers move beyond broad concepts and examine very particular questions about people, society and the world – they ask Thematic Questions and make Thematic Statements.
Thematic Question – a question posed about the nature of humanity or society, which is investigated in the novel’s plot.
Thematic Statement – a conclusion about the nature of humanity or society.
Act One / Beginning of your novel – Raise Thematic Question
Act Two / Middle of your novel – Investigate Thematic Question
Act Three / End of your novel – Conclude Thematic Question with Thematic Statement
– Use single spacing for your synopsis.
– Use indented paragraphs, with no spaces between paragraphs.
– Write in the present tense.
– Write in the third person.
– Write in the same style as your book.
You can play around with this as much as you like, but it’s best to get this completed before you start your first draft.
Print off your synopsis and keep it near you while you write to ensure that you don’t stray too far from your plot.